Old St. Michael’s cemetery situated on the Dublin road has been the principal burial ground for the town since the thirteenth century. The two Anglo-Norman headstones of which I wrote of last year are the earliest evidence of burials at this site and probably commemorate members of the de St. Michael family who were patrons of the parish church established here by the Crouched Friars in the 13th century. Even in death a strict ordering of the social classes saw the rich and powerful separated from the poor as evidenced in the following epitaph.
‘Here lie I by the chancel door,
Here lie I because I’m poor,
The further in, the more you’ll pay,
Here lie I, as warm as they.’
The majority of headstones in St. Michael’s cemetery are from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. For the most part they mark the last resting places of men and women of our town who had long slipped from the community’s memory. Here and there can be found memorials to military men who fought in the wars which punctuated Europe’s history.
Scattered about the cemetery are six small headstones of the Commonwealth war graves commission marking the final resting place of Athy men Michael Byrne, James Dwyer, Thomas Flynn, Martin Hyland, John Lawler and Michael O’Brien, all of whom died in the Great War of 1914-1918. Elsewhere their fellow victims of the war are commemorated on family headstones such as Ion and Leslie Hannon of Ardreigh House, William Crampton of Emily Square who died of his wounds in 1927, Joseph Pender, Christopher Power, George Telford, and the brothers Edward and Thomas Stafford.
Men of the town who died in World War II are also commemorated in St Michael’s cemetery. They include two grandsons of John Holland of Model Farm. Major Niall Holland fighting with the 4/5th Maharatta Light infantry, Indian Army was killed in Burma in June 1944 at the age of 25 years. Sergeant William Holland, RAF, died in Italy in 1945 aged 19 years. Another Athy man Terence H.K. Hosie of the Royal Engineers was killed in action in Italy in 1943. He is also commemorated in the Presbyterian church on the Dublin road, opposite Old St. Michael’s.
Not all those who went to war failed to return. Captain Robert Pearson of the Royal Regiment of Foot served in France and Flanders under the Duke of Marlborough in the 1700’s and returned to Athy where he is buried in St Michael’s cemetery with his parents Richard Pearson and Mary Jackson.
In a quiet corner of the graveyard is a headstone to the memory of William Grattan Esq., Late Lieutenant of the 88th Regiment (The Connaught Rangers). A member of a well known Dublin family he was a first cousin of the novelist Thomas Colley Grattan, who was educated in Athy, and a distant kinsmen of Henry Grattan the statesman.
William joined the Connaught Rangers as an ensign on July 6 1809 and served continuously with the 88th Regiment until 1813 during which time he took part in many of the principal battles of the Peninsular war. This was the war fought in Spain between the British Army led by, another Irishman, Wellington and the French forces under Napoleon. Today Grattan is chiefly remembered for his reminiscences of the campaign in Spain under the title ‘Adventures with the Connaught Rangers’. Charles Oman a distinguished authority on the period wrote that ‘of the many memoirs that I have read, I think that his is on the whole the most graphic and picturesque in giving details of actual conflict’.
Grattan after the capture of the town of Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain wrote that ‘the smell from the still burning houses, the groups of dead and wounded, and the broken fragments of different weapons, marked strongly the character of the preceding nights dispute; and even at this late hour, there were many drunken marauders endeavouring to regain, by some fresh act of atrocity, an equivalent for the plunder their brutal state of intoxication had caused them to lose by the hands of their own companions, who robbed indiscriminately man, woman, or child, friend or foe, the dead or the dying!’
Wounded at both the battles of Badajoz and Salamanca in 1812 Grattan survived the war to publish his memoirs in 1847 followed by two supplementary volumes in 1853. The Irish novelist Charles Lever in his book ‘Charles O’ Malley’ drew heavily on Grattan’s writings.
Old St. Michael’s cemetery is an interesting repository of historical connections both Irish and European. Anyone interested in the history of Athy should visit the 13th century but if you would benefit from a more conventional information source why not consider the Rathmichael Summer School which will provide courses in local history in July and August. Details are available from June Barry, 45 Salthill, Monkstown, Co. Dublin, Tel. (01) 2844572.